Traffic on Hwy. 51 saw an uptick on Monday afternoon as sightseers traveled to the base of the Horse Island Chute Bridge to take a look at the Mississippi River.

“You don’t see this very often,” said Larry Derringer, who made the trip from eastern Perry County with his wife, Terry, to see the river firsthand.

The Chester Bridge has been closed to all traffic since June 2 and will likely remain closed until sometime next week.

Watching the water roll past, only a few feet from the top of the temporary floodgate, Derringer said he was awed by the river’s power.

“I don’t think you can fool with Mother Nature,” Derringer said. “I understand the levee and everything, but you can’t capture a river. Not the Mississippi, anyway.”

“Capture” is certainly a tall order, but containment, at least temporarily, is certainly possible.

According to Perry County Emergency Management director Tom Grayson, Perry County’s levee system is proving up to the task.

“The levee’s looking good,” Grayson said. “The crest has hit. As far as what’s coming afterwards, that’s kind of waiting for the crystal ball to clear up on that one.”

The Mississippi River crested at 46.5 feet Monday at the Chester gage, and levels began falling almost immediately, dropping to 45.9 feet by noon Wednesday, a small decrease, but a decrease nonetheless.

“If we followed recent trends like they had up north, like Hannibal, Clarksville, Canton, they kind of plateaued off for about two days,” Grayson said. “If you look at the weather, they’re calling for rain, but it’s going to be kind of like it was last week where it’s just spotty showers. It looks good up north. So I think it looks optimistic, at least for this week.”

Mark Gremaud, president of the Bois Brule Levee and Drainage District and a veteran river watcher, agreed that conditions are improving.

“We are on the decline,” Gremaud said.

The biggest problem caused by flooding this year has been another closure of the Chester Bridge, which was shut down on June 2 as the river approached 45 feet.

The closure came at the base of the Horse Island Chute Bridge, which connects Hwy. 51 to the Chester Bridge at the northern tip of Perry County. The highway cuts through the levee, meaning that in order to close the levee with the temporary floodwall, the road must also be closed, cutting off access to the bridge. 

On Monday, the water was only a few feet from the top of the floodwall and both the Horse Island bridge deck and Hwy. 51 were completely submerged.

There’s still no way to predict exactly when the bridge might reopen.

“Even when the river recedes down below the road,” Grayson said, “it’s going to have to stay closed for a while because the water has to get below the girders so the inspector can come out an insect the bridge to make sure nothing shifted during the high water. It’ll be a little while before that happens.”

Estimates on how far the water would have to fall put that mark somewhere below 40 feet. That likely won’t happen until sometime next week.

The Chester Bridge is the only Mississippi River crossing between the Jefferson Barracks Bridge in St. Louis, more than an hour away, and the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge in Cape Girardeau, nearly 40 miles to the south.

According to data collected during a recent Environmental Impact Study related to the possibility of replacing the nearly 80-year-old bridge, more than 6,700 vehicles use the bridge each day, ranging from tractor-trailers and farm equipment to passenger vehicles.

Hardest hit have been local manufacturers like TG Missouri in Perryville, which has an estimated 200 employees that live in Illinois, and Chester-based Gilster-Mary Lee, which operates several plants on both sides of the river.

It has a big impact,” said Perry County Economic Development director Scott Sattler. “We have lots of people that live in southern Illinois and cross the bridge for work, and then companies like Gilster that have trucks that go back and forth all day. Now they have to add all that fuel cost to go all the way to Cape or St. Louis across the bridge to bring their materials over.”

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